Ministers’ pre-election posts cast doubt on Coalition defence of car park scandal

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Liberal ministers boasted that they had “secured” funding for commuter car parks, despite the infrastructure department later claiming they were election commitments.

Labor has seized on the social media posts of David Coleman, Michael Sukkar and the then urban infrastructure minister, Alan Tudge, to argue that spending had already been locked in as a decision of government before the campaign, rather than being contingent on Coalition victory.

The social media posts call into question the department’s defence of the program, that most of the projects were election commitments, which the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, has said meant “the Australian people had their chance” to judge it and had “voted the government back in”.

Labor is seeking to open a new inquiry into the $660m commuter car parks within the $4.8bn urban congestion fund, urging the joint committee of public accounts and audit to investigate, partly because Tudge is yet to explain his handling of the program.

Related: Angus Taylor and Josh Frydenberg’s offices chose sites for commuter car parks

In June the Australian National Audit Office released a scathing report finding that none of the 47 project sites had been chosen by the department, but were instead handpicked by the government on the advice of its MPs and candidates.

The projects were chosen after first consulting MPs, senators and candidates representing the 20 top marginal seats the Coalition was seeking to keep or win from Labor.

Although seven projects were selected as election commitments, the ANAO found that 40 had been selected before the campaign, including 27 through an exchange of letters between Scott Morrison, Tudge and the then deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, on 10 April 2019 – the day before the campaign started.

The infrastructure department treated these as election commitments because they were announced during the campaign, telling the ANAO that once the projects had been announced its role is to “implement the projects consistent with relevant legislation”.

Unlike the 40 projects that were reflected in the pre-election financial update, election commitments need further approval and funding is contingent on the party promising them being elected.

But social media posts reveal Liberal ministers had already committed the money before April.

On 27 March 2019 the then immigration minister, David Coleman, stood with the prime minister and said: “We’ve been able to secure $7.5m for a new car park in Hurstville.” Two weeks earlier, Coleman boasted that he had “secured $7.5m to improve parking in Panania”, using the same language to describe the commitment, with no suggestion the project would not be delivered if the Coalition were not re-elected.

Tudge also used the language that funding had been “secured” – regardless of whether the project predated the election campaign or was announced during it. On 7 February 2019 he said he had “secured $15m to build up to 500 more car parks at Ferntree Gully station” and in April he said he had “secured funds to build an extra 500 car parks near Boronia station”.

Sukkar announced $30m for multi-level carparks at Heatherdale and Heathmont stations on 29 April, with a graphic suggesting the government was already “delivering” these projects.

Labor’s shadow urban infrastructure minister, Andrew Giles, said: “The closer you look at the commuter car park program, the worse it gets. It’s clear this was always about treating public money as a re-election slush fund – while taking frustrated commuters in the suburbs for a ride.

“Statements made by Liberal MPs before the election can’t be reconciled with what we now know, thanks to the work of the auditor general, nor what passes for their defence of their rorts.”

The urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, has defended the commuter car park program, saying the projects “were decided based on need”.

Last week Fletcher said he had the authority of the prime minister and cabinet to make funding commitments which is “what he did with a view to reducing congestion in our big cities, [in] Melbourne our fastest growing city”.

Despite Fletcher’s defence, Labor has noted that Morrison, Tudge and McCormack, who approved two projects in Tudge’s electorate, are yet to comment on the controversy.

Giles and Labor’s infrastructure shadow minister, Catherine King, have written to the audit committee asking it to investigate.

King and Giles said the ANAO report showed the department “did not put in place criteria to assess whether projects represented an ‘ethical’ use of public money” despite the requirements of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act.

“For this reason, we are strongly of the view that an inquiry should be undertaken, particularly considering the department’s recent evidence before the Senate that it disagrees with some of the report’s key findings,” they said.

“It is very unfortunate that we, and the Australian public, have not had the chance to hear from either of the ministers responsible for the decisions the subject of the report, nor from the prime minister, whose involvement in this the report makes clear.”

The ANAO told Senate estimates that the staffer in the prime minister’s office who was engaged in the notorious sports rorts affair had also been involved in deciding which projects were funded.

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